Miller move suits ex-CEO

Managing director Keith Cooper holds the  logo for the rebranded Miller Creative Group. Photo by...
Managing director Keith Cooper holds the logo for the rebranded Miller Creative Group. Photo by Peter McIntosh.

Sally Rae caught up with former Silver Fern Farms CEO Keith Cooper and asked him about his latest role with Miller Creative Group. 

"Damn interesting'' is how Keith Cooper describes his role as managing director of long-established Dunedin firm Miller Studios.

It has been a busy four months for the former Silver Fern Farms chief executive with the 103-year-old business about to rebrand and relaunch as Miller Creative Group.

While it might have been around for a long time, for an organisation that was customer-centred it was not enough to "sit back and rely on business as usual''.

"It's not about reinventing, it's about rejuvenating. It's giving customers confidence we're a modern organisation,'' he said.

On the surface, it might seem a very different game to running a meat-processing company.

But the reality was it was "not foreign'', just a different product.

"All the challenges are the same, you've still got customers that want something done straightaway,'' he said.

A customer wanting an office fit-out or signs was like a farmer saying he wanted his stock killed tomorrow, so there was still the same time pressure, he said.

Mr Cooper (53) resigned from Silver Fern Farms in October 2014, having worked at the company since 1989 when it was then known as PPCS.

He was appointed chief executive in 2007.

While he enjoyed his time at Silver Fern Farms "immensely'', it was time to move on.

"I'd done my stint,'' he said.

He had previously dealt with Miller Studios when the firm did fit-out work for SFF at its old office in Harvest Court and some of the work at its present headquarters in the former chief post office.

He and his Bannockburn-based brother John have both invested in the business, buying just over half, with two existing shareholders remaining in the business.

It was the creative nature of the business that appealed to Mr Cooper and it is clear that he is enjoying his role.

Hopefully, they were adding value by delivering process improvements and sales and marketing plans and "just dragging everything into the 21st century''.

"We just want to take it from good to great,'' he said.

From humble beginnings as a signwriting studio in a small upstairs room in George St, established by Oswell Miller more than a century ago, the business has grown to include design and project management, and shop and office fit-out.

It still made signs at its Anzac Ave premises, just not with a paint and a brush anymore, Mr Cooper quipped.

The business, which did work throughout the country, employed 45 staff and had an office in Christchurch.

Much of its work was bespoke, largely one-off designs, builds and installations for customers.

"The beauty of it is we're not a production line. Every job is different. What we do here is very creative,'' he said.

The last few months had been spent understanding and analysing the business, working alongside the team.

It was also hands-on; he could walk out of his office in the company's base in Anzac Avenue and see exactly what was being done.

One of the benefits of remaining Dunedin-based was the quality and stability of the workforce.

The cost of producing things in Dunedin was competitive and there were not the difficulties of getting around a big city, Mr Cooper said.

He saw an opportunity for the adoption of new technology, particularly for signs, and he believed the next phase of the business would be around technology.

It had started as a family business and the culture remained that of a family business. The aim was to grow it to a bigger business, based on the latest capabilities.

It was up to the firm to identify trends and technologies that could assist customers with their businesses.

"In a way, we're the research agent for many of our customers,'' he said.

He saw good opportunities in Christchurch, where the retail rebuild was only really starting now, although there would be challenges.

It was a highly competitive environment and the business had to be competitive.

Shop fit-outs could be imported from China but the

Miller team could be on-site to "make sure everything goes together and, if it doesn't, we fix it on the spot''.

Part of its function, though, was as project managers and it often installed Chinese-manufactured products.

Mr Cooper enjoyed living in Dunedin, describing it as "an awfully easy place to live in''.

It had everything that larger centres had, with Central Otago on the doorstep.

He is a director of Dunedin City Holdings Ltd and owns a farm at Middlemarch.

Earlier this year, he was appointed chairman of the Otago Rugby Football Union.

The rugby union was a business operating in a challenging environment.

But it was in good shape and was growing its numbers in grass-roots sport, he said.

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